Judy Kuan talks about her love for the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood — and how she developed her piano playing (mixed with personal training) and discovered a love of rock climbing during the pandemic.
So, what’s your New York story? Born here, or just arrived?
I’m originally from Minnesota, and moved to NYC in 2005. For the most part, I’ve been here since, and now it’s impossible to call anywhere else home.
How did you end up in Hell’s Kitchen?
Hell’s Kitchen was the very first neighborhood I lived in, just for a couple of years. I hadn’t been out of college for long, and it was affordable, fun and convenient to live here. After spending several years downtown, my husband and I moved back to Hell’s Kitchen in 2016. The vibe reminds us of East Village, and we love getting more space and amenities here.
What’s your favorite thing about Hell’s Kitchen?
Having chosen to stay during the pandemic, I have to say that the neighborhoody feel of Hell’s Kitchen only became stronger. It’s vibrant and resilient.
And what’s your Hell’s Kitchen pet peeve?
Not enough ice cream shops!
Did you stay put when the pandemic hit or did you find an escape for some of the time?
We stayed through it all.
What did you do for work pre-COVID? What are you doing now?
Like many New Yorkers, I’ve gone through multiple careers (journalism, finance/investing, start-ups). Now I’m an independent personal trainer/yoga teacher and amateur pianist. Pre-COVID, I was waking up at 4am and riding the MTA 10 times a day to see clients all across the city. I loved the freedom of working for myself, and the personal connections with my clients, most of whom need a little extra attention due to a special condition or injury. During the height of COVID, I only saw my clients online and spend the rest of my time plunking away at my piano and making fitness videos set to my own piano recordings. The thought was to inspire classical music fans to get more physically active while homebound (especially the elderly). It was a therapeutic project for me to work on, but it never took off. Now I’m back to a mix of in-person and online personal training, though still at a significantly lower volume than before. I would love to do more with music, but there is just so much talent in this city, I haven’t really figured out what that could look like for me.
What’s the most interesting thing that you’ve learned during the pandemic?
How attention span — not time — is our scarcest resource. I spent a lot of time learning classical piano and indoor rock climbing during the pandemic. Both have helped my focus and awareness immensely and created a virtuous cycle of piano and climbing progress that I couldn’t have imagined. It’s made me wonder, “What else is possible?” instead of just getting depressed about getting older.
Tell us one thing that’s given you hope during the pandemic?
The grassroots community mobilization efforts here in Hell’s Kitchen. Like the Hell’s Kitchen Litter Legion — I remember reading about Catie Savage in W42ST last year, and it’s amazing what a movement she’s started. Same with the Hell’s Kitchen Free Store, and more recently the Hell’s Kitchen Community Cupboard.
What’s the most serendipitous (random/obscure/ insane) experience that’s happened to you in Hell’s Kitchen?
I’m a big planner, so there’s not much room for chance… But when I moved from EV to HK in 2016, I wanted to shift my client base to be closer to our new home. One of the first inquiries I got through Thumbtack was from someone who lived literally across the street from our new place! We’ve worked together since then, until COVID hit. She has much better stories than me… maybe you should interview her! Also, we learned after the fact, but apparently my husband and I scooped our current home from our absolute favorite comedian and HK celebrity whom we *watch daily* (his application still needed a few items, and we had everything ready to send in). We are forever repentant.
What’s your closest brush with world fame and celebrity?
Being at the center of attention is unnerving for me, so thankfully no close brushes!
What’s your superpower?
Being super lucky in poker. I’m the one that plays the pocket threes and ends up with 4-of-a-kind.
Which people inspire you the most?
RBG (RIP). Trevor Noah. Michelle Kwan — I didn’t realize until recently how active she’s been in politics, especially helping the Biden campaign. Lin-Manuel Miranda. A common theme among all — trailblazers with strong values, who defied the odds and were/are using their platforms for good.
What’s your favorite quote or saying?
“There is nothing so terrible as activity without insight.” — J.W. Goethe This applies so much to life overall, but also specifically to my fitness work!
Do you love Times Square? Why, or why not?
I love that it’s there and the vivacity of NYC that it represents, but I didn’t personally enjoy being in the thick of it, especially in peak tourist season pre-COVID. We did venture in for a few meals at Sushi by Bou, and that was totally worth navigating the tsunami of tourists.
Do you love Hudson Yards? Why, or why not?
Yes, I’m originally from Minnesota so I looooove indoor malls. I was planning to surprise my husband for his birthday in March 2020 with a visit to The Edge and a group dinner to try out Wild Ink, but that was literally the day before everything shut down in NYC so we still haven’t been…
If you could bring one thing (person/place/event) back to HK that is no longer around, what would it be?
Our favorite restaurant was Method, the Japanese sake bar and restaurant on Tenth Ave b/n 50th & 51st. It’s sad to see that they’re permanently closed. [The location is soon to open as Bulbap Grill].
More West Side Stories
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This is a plug for classical music and investing time and funds in the arts.
In my mid-30s, I started noticing my memory was getting unreliable, so I thought I’d try picking up classical piano again (I started playing piano when I was 4 and kept going until I left for college but was always average at best). I started taking classes at Juilliard’s continuing education division and met my piano teacher (IG: @assaffweisman executive director of @icpmusic ) who taught me how to strive for musicality instead of butchering pieces that were way too advanced for me. Having regular Zoom lessons and being able to work on my music were what helped make COVID bearable. In my opinion, it is so much more satisfying to play some gorgeous Chopin than to fall into a TikTok rabbit hole.
I’ve met so many friends and classmates through music, and so many have started or returned to music once they’ve retired. And they all say that they wish they would have brought music education into their lives earlier, when it’s just easier and faster to learn things. Or they’ll listen me play something, and say, “Maybe I’ll be able to play that in my next life.” I feel so lucky to have had exposure to classical piano training when I was young, and then the bandwidth and motivation to pick it up again while I’m still able to make meaningful progress. I really encourage anyone with even a smidgeon of interest in developing their musicianship and music appreciation to invest in it.
Some people write off classical music as staid or boring, but there is just so much variety within the broader category. For example, my piano teacher’s ensemble did their first post-COVID concert a few weeks ago. I had never heard any of the works they performed, but one was a ballet score based on African mythology turned chamber quintet, and another was written while the composer (Messiaen) was interned at a POW camp in Germany during WWII and premiered by the composer and three fellow prisoners for an audience of guards and inmates. How is it possible *not* to be curious about this music, especially experienced as a live performance?
Judy’s West Side Favorites
Central Rock Gym (technically in Waterline Square…) CRG has been the ultimate sanity- (and marriage-) saver for my husband and me. For our weekly COVID-era date nights, we grab our climbing shoes and head over to Central Rock Gym. It’s a reward for me — usually for finishing filming my weekly fitness+music video — and my husband is always just so so so happy to go there and throw himself at the “problems” on the wall to clear his head from video-conferencing fatigue. We love the laid back and friendly atmosphere, and the new and clean facilities. The team runs it so well, and they’ve really gone above and beyond to create a super safe and fun place. It’s lovely to be able to strike up conversations and shout out encouragements to both perfect strangers and familiar faces who happen to be working on the same climbs (with masks on the whole time and from a distance, of course). We’d only been climbing for about 9 months before they were shut down for another 6 months. Since they’ve reopened, we’ve been there every week and they/we are still going strong!
Ariana Afghan Restaurant. I loved coming here the first time I lived in Hell’s Kitchen, and nothing has changed about that. We love bringing our friends here to share a giant feast, or as de facto catering when having friends over. We cannot get enough of the Kadoo Bolanee and Manto.
B-Side Pizza. We used to go all the time pre-COVID, and they’ve been so important in helping us feel like this neighborhood is our home. At least once a week to Hell’s Kitchen for a healthyish dinner and B-side Pizza for a decadent lunch. Because my husband and I don’t really drink (I’m allergic to alcohol — so sad), we try to go during off hours — super early — so we’re not taking away a table from them during their peak times. One of the things we miss most during COVID is Hell’s Kitchen’s HK Chopped Salad, which is a pretty ridiculous thing to say given all the other amazing offerings they have. Thank goodness we can still get our carbonara pizza and black kale salad fix from B-side every week. The host and waitstaff always remembered us (no onions!) and were so gracious, and we were happy to see familiar faces when they opened up for outdoor dining.
Three Roosters Thai. This gem opened during COVID, and we have their highly-addictive Thai fried chicken (sub out the rice for salad instead) after our climbing sessions. I never knew fried chicken could be so good.
Huascar Bakery. It’s one of my go-tos anytime I want to grab some sweet goodies to share. So many creative flavors and beautifully presented cupcakes and other desserts!
Hell’s Kitchen Free Store. I love how this is such a community effort. Being able to contribute to something meaningful, even in a small way, is heartwarming and helps me feel connected with my neighbors.
Dolly Varden. Their food! Their drinks (according to my husband since I’m allergic)! Their traincar! Love every aspect.
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